The respect and myth of the Australian “Digger” (soldier) was gained in the bloody battles of World War 1 and World War 2. Former Australian soldiers would be members of the ”RSL” (Returned Service League) club which is an influential Australian institution. The legend of the Australian Digger is best remembered with the legend of Gallipolli and the ANZAC troops.
The Battle of Gallipoli, and the legend of the ANZACs When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 (World War 1), Australia as a “member” of the British Empire was automatically at war too. The response by the Australian government was immediate – by the end of October, the First Australian Infantry Force of 20,000 volunteers had been dispatched to Europe via Egypt.
Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty of England) conceived a plan that was intended to relieve Turkish pressure on Russia’s troops by forcing an entrance to the Black Sea. He wished to take the Dardanelles, and ordered the waiting Australian, New Zealand, French, British, Indian and Gurkha divisions to attack from the sea.
The Turks, who had been warned of these intentions, were entrenched in fortified positions along the ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Their commanders, Mustafa Kamel and the German Liman von Sanders were able to direct their fire upon the exposed beaches below – like a unsuccessful precursor to Omaha Beach in World War 2. From 25 April 1915, when they landed, until 20 December when they withdrew, the British and Allied forces were pinned to the near vertical cliffs and narrow coves. There was horrendous carnage and epic heroism upon the ridges and beaches of Cape Hellas, Lone Pine and Suvla Bay – names which will remain forever etched on Australian war memorials.
The defeat at Gallipoli spawned the legend of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Australia and New Zealand would forever remember their troops at Gallipoli. Each year, ANZAC day is a public holiday with memorial services to remember the soldiers who gave their lives. A poet laurete John Masefield wrote” “They were …the finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times. For physical beauty and nobility of bearing they surpassed any men I have ever seen; they walked and looked like kings in old poems.” The 1980s movie “Gallipolli”, starring a young Mel Gibson recounted the story of the ANZACs. Out of that baptism by mud, shrapnel and gallantry arose Australia’s first coherent sense of nationhood and identity.
In World War 1, of the 330,000 Australians who had fought, 226,000 (68.5 percent) were casualties – a greater percentage by far than had been suffered by any other country among the Allies. If nationhood was being born, the nation itself was being cut down in the war fields of World War 1.
[more – Australia at war]